‘Code red for climate’: House Oversight Committee chair ramps up pressure on Big Oil executives for documents

‘For far too long, Big Oil has escaped accountability for its central role in bringing our planet to the brink of a climate catastrophe,’ Democrat Carolyn Maloney says

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Wednesday 03 November 2021 16:24
Big Oil hearing begins US probe into climate disinformation

Congress has subpoenaed many of the top fossil fuel companies in the world, as well as the trade groups that represent them, as part of its investigation into how the industry kept the public from learning about the climate crisis.

On Tuesday, representative Carolyn B Maloney, chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, requested reams of internal documents from ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP America, Shell, as well as the American Petroleum Institute and US Chamber of Commerce, saying the firms and trade groups hadn’t been cooperating with Congress’ investigation.

“For far too long, Big Oil has escaped accountability for its central role in bringing our planet to the brink of a climate catastrophe,” Ms Maloney, a Democrat, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. “That ends today.”

“We are at ‘code red’ for climate, and I am committed to doing everything I can to help rescue this planet for our children. We need to get to the bottom of the oil industry’s disinformation campaign. And with these subpoenas, we will,” Ms Maloney added in a statement.

The Independent has reached out to each recipient of the request, asking for comment.

“bp is carefully reviewing the subpoena and will continue working with the committee,” a spokesperson for the company said in a statement. “Since the Committee made its request a little over a month ago, API has been working with and will continue to work the Committee consistent with our right to associate and engage in free speech to address the challenge of climate change while producing affordable and reliable energy,” added a spokesperson for the American Petroleum Institute

It’s the latest step in the groundbreaking inquiry into climate disinformation, after last week’s high-profile hearings with fossil fuel executives at the Capitol, which some have compared to the famed 1994 hearings when tobacco executives were grilled about the health consequences of cigarettes.

At the more recent hearings, however, the executives did not commit to stop lobbying against climate policies, or apologise for sowing public doubt about climate science.

Documents have shown that firms like Exxon and Shell knew about global warming for decades before it became a top public priority, and funded trade groups or ran advertisements of their own that cast doubt on the nature of carbon emissions as a threat.

“That was consistent with what the scientific consensus was at the time,” ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods said at the hearing, defending a set of ads in the early 2000s that were skeptical of global warming. “And as time has progressed, we’ve continued to maintain a position that has evolved with science and is today consistent with the science.”

Some Democratic members hammered the companies for the distance between their public attempts at going green and their behind-the-scenes work to stymie the types of radical changes to the energy sector needed to avoid the worst of the climate crisis.

“You will say your companies have contributed to academic research on climate science,” congressman Ro Khanna of California said. “That is true, but that is not the issue at hand. Despite your early knowledge of climate science, your companies and the trade associations you fund chose time and again to loudly raise doubts about the science and downplay the severity of the crisis.”

Others praised the firm, with Republican representative Jim Jordan of Ohio saying, “God bless Chevron for saying they’ll increase production.”

Elsewhere in Congress, Democrats are in the midst of negotiating on two major infrastructure and spending packages, and while they represent the biggest investments in climate action in history, environmentalists also note that Democratic US Senators Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, large recipients of pharmaceutical and fossil fuel money, respectively, have opposed key measures that would’ve made the bills even more impactful on the rapidly deteriorating climate. The API, one of the groups named in the subpoena, said it had in fact been pushing for climate action, just through different policies than some Democrats in Congress.

“API has lobbied on a number of proposals that are critical to the U.S. meeting its Paris obligations, including legislation and proposals related to hydrogen, carbon capture and carbon pricing. Since we released our Climate Action Framework earlier this year, we’ve consistently advocated for carbon pricing as the most impactful way to reduce emissions and a better approach to the punitive new taxes and restrictions on energy proposed as part of reconciliation,” a spokesperson.

Mr Manchin, for example, is against the clean power plant plan that’s a key part of the Democrats’ climate push, incentivising utilities to rapidly move away from using fossil energy.

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